Inside our Hidden Japan

These photos, taken by tour leader William last November, capture just a few moments from our  ‘Hidden Japan’ tour which begins and ends in glorious Kyoto before discovering lesser known Japanese treasures and experiences from Honshu and rural Shikoku…
The ancient temple community of Koya

The ancient temple community of Koya

As you probably know (because we witter on about it quite a lot), every member of our team at InsideJapan Tours has lived in Japan. We are a family of dedicated Japan buffs whose local knowledge extends far beyond the bounds of Tokyo and Kyoto – into the far-flung and little known regions from chilly Hokkaido all the way down to subtropical Okinawa.

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes in Hiroshima

Given that we’re all such Japan nuts, it’s no surprise that unusual, in-depth, off-the-beaten-track trips are our forté – and our customers come to us for an experience of Japan that will take them away from the tourist traps and deep into “real Japan”.

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

William prepares to tuck into a beautiful kaiseki meal

Beautiful and mysterious geisha in Kyoto

Beautiful: Wannabe Geisha, Kyoto

Hidden Japan is one of our best Small Group Tours if you want to really discover a side of this fascinating country that rarely features in the guide books. Yes, it covers the must-see ancient city of Kyoto and famous Hiroshima – but it also ventures to the atmospheric temple community of Koya, deep in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula and to the amazing “Art Island” of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, and various great locations on the little-visited island of Shikoku.

Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin on Naoshima Island

You’ll spend the night at a real temple lodging, attending morning prayers and sampling traditional, Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine; you’ll cross vertiginous vine bridges built by samurai across the lush Iya Valley; you’ll have the opportunity to bathe at Japan’s oldest hot spring bathhouse, favoured by the Imperial Family; and you’ll ascend by cable car to the top of Mount Bizan for spectacular views across Shikoku.

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

A happy traveller in the beautiful Iya Valley

You’ll also visit one of Japan’s most famous landscape gardens, Ritsurin; climb the steps to the top of one of Shikoku’s most venerated shrines, Konpira-san; explore beautiful Miyajima with its iconic “floating” gate, one of Japan’s most famous images; see a traditional ‘Bunraku’ puppet show in the town of Tokushima; and experience true Japanese hospitality at a traditional ryokan inn.

Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan's royal family

Outside Dogo Onsen, the bathhouse of Japan’s royal family

Hidden Japan brings an adventurous spirit and a desire to really get beneath the surface of this amazing country. Our tour leaders are Japanophiles who speak fluent English and Japanese, have an extensive knowledge of the country’s culture and customs, and have made their home here in Japan.

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Crossing an Iya Valley vine bridge

Just a few of our previous customers!

Just a few of our previous customers!

‘Hidden Japan’ is an insight into parts of Japan and its culture that most visitors do not to get experience.  And as one of the tour customers said, ” Overall, I LOVED my experience…I loved the culture, gardens and temples we saw. Just amazing” – there you have it.

There’s a last-minute place on our spring Hidden Japan, departing on 26th of March – but we also have departures in the summer months into the mild autumn – both with their benefits. Drop us a line to help you get ‘lost’ in Japanese culture too!

Girl’s Day in Japan – A little bit about Hina Matsuri

Princess In Japan, every year on the 3rd of March comes a traditional celebration known properly as momo-no-sekku (桃の節句) but more casually referred to as Hina Matsuri (雛祭り) or, in English, as Girl’s Day. Which is rather appropriate since the holiday is focused on a family’s hope that their daughter or granddaughter will grow up healthily, happily and successfully. An intrinsic part of Girl’s DaAkiba Hina Dolls (1 of 1)y are Hina Ningyō (雛人形), the dolls that grace a family’s home from mid-February to March 4th. And not a day longer because leaving the dolls out past March 4th is said to delay the girl’s chance at marriage. Though as a new father who can’t bear the thought of giving his daughter away, I plan to leave ours out until at least April! Although the superstition of days past has largely faded away, the tradition comes from an old belief that dolls could contain bad spirits and unfortunate luck. The dolls of ancient Japan (around 1000 years ago) were made of straw and paper and floated on streams to take this bad fortune far away. For any Ghibli fans, this is also said to be the origin of the paper dolls that make a brief appearance in Spirited Away. For those lucky enough to travel in Japan during February – when nearly every day is sunny, the skies are clear, and the tourists sites less crowded than any other time of year – large sets of Hina Dolls can be found throughout the country in restaurants, shops, homes and even in train stations. The photo on the left was taken at a busy electronics store in central Tokyo, probably the last place one would expect to see such a traditional and elegant display. As might be expected, each of the different dolls has a particular position and rEmperor (1 of 1)epresents something and someone. The two on top represent the Emperor and Empress, on the second tier are three court ladies, the third has five male musicians with their various instruments, the fourth platform has two ministers on it but is also commonly decorated with small tables and stands of rice cakes, on the fifth – and generally final – platform are three protectors of the Emperor and Empress (one sad, one angry and one in good spirits). For the truly elaborate Hina Doll stands there can be seven layers and the bottom two layers in this case are used for miniature furniture or old world travel goods like a small palanquin. Not surprisingly, the above setup is a bit too elaborate for the average home, not to mention too expensive. As you may be able to tell from the detail shot at the right, these dolls are not your average play things. Craftsmen and women spend months making each and every piece of the dolls by hand. The 12 layer silk kimonos that adorn the Emperor and Empress are reminiscent of those worn by royalty during weddings in the Heian Period (794 – 1185) and still worn by the Imperial family for formal weddings today. The last time being in 1993 when Princess Masako wedded the CrownHina Bears Prince. The Heian Period is also the period from which Girl’s Day has its origins. There are often pieces of lacquer and working lights and trees and flowers made of fabric and silk. The fans and swords are crafted singularly and the dolls expressions are unique to each artisan’s tastes and preferences. Quite simply, these so-called “dolls” are rightly considered works of art. Accordingly, the full sets can cost over 10,000 US dollars! Even sets of only the Emperor and Empress – by far and away the more popular choice for modern Japanese families – often costs thousands of dollars (USD). For this reason many doll makers and companies are getting creative and finding affordable compromises that allow the average person to celebrate the birth of a new daughter without having to take out a loan. Disney characters, anime heroTemarizushi Dinneres, wood carved dolls and even teddy bears (like those pictured here) have become fun and easy alternatives. On the actual holiday, March 3rd, the family celebrates with traditional food and a small at-home party. Although there are regional differences, one common dish that is served on Hina Matsuri is chirashizushi, a delicious sushi recipe where a bed of vinegared rice is topped with fresh fish and other ingredients. Also popular is a fermented rice drink called shirozake and diamond shaped tricolored rice cakes called hishimochi. Green for long-lasting good health, red for good fortune and white for purity.

Although I’ve lived in Japan for many years, I’m looking forward to celebrating my first Hina Matsuri with my daughter this March. We chose to make temarizushi (round sushi balls – see picture to the right) as it is both somewhat traditional and also very cute – perfect for Girl’s Day!Home set (1 of 1)

10 fantastic places to see cherry blossom in Japan

It’s nearly the end of winter and spring is just around the corner – which means it’s nearly cherry blossom season!

To celebrate, we’ve produce a super-duper new cherry blossom infographic to keep you interactively up-to-date with when and where the sakura will be blooming this year. Click the link above and slide the slider to see when the sakura is expected in each destination. Check it out!

Our cherry blossom guide

Our brand new cherry blossom guide!

To the Japanese, cherry blossom is much more than just a few flowers. It’s hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it, but during the sakura (cherry blossom) season, the whole country is swept by a sort of festival atmosphere that lasts from the first flowering down in southerly Okinawa until the last petal drops in northern Hokkaido. As the blossom front sweeps along the length of the archipelago over the course of several months, the shops fill with sakura-flavoured drinks and snacks, the blossom report becomes more important than the weather forecast, and people flock in their droves to the most popular hanami (flower-viewing) points to lay out tarpaulins beneath the trees and generally eat, drink and be merry.

All this means that although it is the busiest time of year for tourism in Japan, it’s also one of the nicest – with lovely weather, beautiful landscapes and a relaxed, party-like atmosphere everywhere from the biggest city to the smallest of rural villages.

But where best to make the most of the phenomenon of sakura?

Well, it depends who you ask. Everybody tends to have their own favourite spot, whether it’s one of the famous destinations or just their family garden, so this is not a “top ten” list – only a few suggestions. You’ll have to find your own favourite by yourself!

1. Mount Yoshino

View from Yoshino's main viewpoint

View from Yoshino’s main viewpoint

One must either be very brave or very stupid to venture to Yoshino during peak cherry blossom season. Covered in over 30,000 cherry trees, it’s the most famous sakura viewing spot in Japan and has been for hundreds of years. The route most visitors take to view the blossoms snakes from the railway station at the foot of the mountain ridge, passing through four distinct sections (the Shimo Senbon, Naka Senbon, Kami Senbon and Oku Senbon), with various parks and viewpoints as well as lots of yatai food stalls along the way.

Though it does get overwhelmingly busy, I visited Yoshino on a weekend in peak season in 2014 and I do think that it’s worth the effort – especially if you take a few pieces of advice along with you! Firstly, arrive as early as possible to avoid the worst of the crowds. You might even consider staying at a ryokan on the mountain itself so that you can enjoy the blossom in peace, just after sunrise. If you’re planning to eat lunch at a local restaurant, eat early to avoid the massive queues at lunchtime – or do what I did and just buy lots of delicious snacks from the yatai food stalls along the way. Bringing a picnic is another great alternative. Lastly, be sure to reserve a seat on the train home! Standing up all the way back to Nara or Kyoto after a day of hiking is not the one – as I found out to my detriment.

Check out my post from last year for more tips!

2. Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

Since the vast majority of people who visit Japan will visit Tokyo, where better to suggest than the capital’s very own Shinjuku Gyoen – a large park located right at the heart of the city, within walking distance of one of its largest and busiest entertainment and business hubs.

Tokyo is famous the world over as a hyper-modern metropolis packed with high-rise buildings and flashing neon lights, and whilst this is true – there is also a surprising wealth of green spaces where you can take time out from the hustle and bustle of the city to relax. One of the best places to see cherry blossom in Tokyo is undoubtedly Shinjuku Gyoen, which is home to over one thousand cherry trees of both early- and late-blooming varieties, meaning that the sakura season here lasts longer than elsewhere in the city.

Other lovely sakura spots in the city include the Imperial Palace Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens and Ueno Park – so be sure to try out a few.

3. Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle in the cherry blossom

Fully re-opened this year after a five-year facelift, Japan’s largest and most impressive castle is also a wonderful place to see the cherry blossom. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived fires, wars, earthquakes and the Meiji Restoration to be one of only a handful of original feudal castles still standing in Japan – and 2015 is an especially good year to visit following its hiatus from the tourist trail. Surrounded by sakura trees, Himeji is undoubtedly at its best in the spring!

If Himeji isn’t on your itinerary this spring, don’t worry – nearly all Japanese castles (whether original or reconstructed) make excellent hanami locations as they are traditionally surrounded by cherry trees

4. Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji framed by sakura

The only thing better than one Japanese national icon is two Japanese national icons – and for a couple of months each year you can get two for the price of one as Mount Fuji is surrounded by cherry blossom. There are numerous places from which to view Mount Fuji, but our favourites are Hakone and the Fuji Five Lakes region. Fuji Five Lakes is perhaps better than Hakone when it comes to sakura, and two of the best spots are the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko and the Chureito Pagdo, built in the hills of Fujiyoshida City.

5. Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

Spring Elegance; David Lovejoy; IJT Staff; Kyoto

Geisha on Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path

Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path is a lovely stone walkway that follows a canal through the northern part of the city’s Higashiyama district. It gets its name from a particular philosopher – Nishida Kitaro – who was said to wander down the path in meditation on his way to Kyoto University. The path runs for about two kilometres and as well as plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops it is lined all the way with cherry trees, which explode into colour in early April – providing one of Kyoto’s most popular hanami spots.

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Hanami parties in Maruyama Park

Other famous hanami locations in Kyoto include Maruyama Park, with its giant weeping cherry tree; the Arashiyama district on the outskirts of the city, famous for its bamboo groves and monkey park; and Heian Shrine, where the weeping cherry trees bloom a few days later than in the rest of Kyoto – making it a great option for visitors who have missed peak season!

6. Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa

Kenrokuen Gardens with cherry blossom, Kanazawa

Acknowledged as one of the top three landscape gardens in Japan (and widely considered to be the best of the three), Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year – but especially so during the cherry blossom season. The garden is so large that you could easily spend a couple of hours wandering through it, and at closing time if you listen very carefully you may hear the voice of InsideJapan’s Richard Farmer over the loudspeaker politely asking you to leave!

As well as having lots of sakura trees within the garden, there are plenty more surrounding it – especially at nearby Kanazawa Castle. Kanazawa itself is one of the hottest Japan destinations for 2015, what with its shiny new bullet train line, beautiful station, beautifully preserved traditional districts and cutting edge 21st Century Museum of Art – so there’s no excuse not to make it part of your itinerary.

7. Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura (photo: JNTO)

Miharu Takizakura, (lit. “Waterfall cherry tree of Miharu”) is located near the small town of Miharu in Fukushima Prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region of Japan’s Honshu main island. Over one thousand years old, 12 metres tall and with a trunk circumference of 9.5 metres, this massive weeping cherry tree is probably Japan’s most famous tree – and is thought by many to be its most beautiful.

As the Japanese do very much like to rank things in lists, it comes as no surprise that Miharu Takizakura tops both the “five great cherry trees of Japan” and the “three giant cherry trees of Japan”. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, “polls frequently rank it as the number one tree in all of Japan”. One does have to wonder how often Japan needs to take polls about its trees, but anyway. It’s a pretty nice tree, I’m sure you’ll agree.

8. Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki Castle with sakura

Considered to be one of the top three cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan (here we go again with the lists), Hirosaki Castle at the northern tip of Honshu main island is a wonderful place to see in the sakura. Since it’s so northern, the blossoms come out rather later here than in more southerly regions, making this a great spot for those who arrive in Japan too late to hit peak season elsewhere.

From around late April each year, Hirosaki Park is tranformed into a pink wonderland with over 2,500 cherry trees, cherry blossom tunnels, evening illuminations, moats turned completely pink with petals, lovely picnic areas, and rental rowing boats combining to create a truly magical hanami location. If you visit between April 23 and May 5, you will also catch the Hirosaki cherry blossom festival.

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

A pink, petal-filled moat at Hirosaki Castle (photo: Japanguide.com)

Unfortunately Hirosaki Castle is currently undergoing renovations planned to last around a decade, but the park will be a lovely place to see the sakura this year nonetheless.

9. Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Hanamiyama Park (photo: Japanguide.com)

Another entry from the northern Tohoku region of Japan,  Hanamiyama Park (lit. “flower viewing mountain”) lies on the slopes surrounding a rural farming community in Fukushima Prefecture. The park was started by local farmers who began planting ornamental plants and trees in the area, and was opened to the public in 1959. The variety of types of cherry tree and other flowering trees mean that there are actually a wide range of spring colours in the area, with lovely views of the Azuma Mountains in the distance.

Visit the visitors centre at the entrance of the park to pick up maps with suggested walking courses and viewing points that look out over Fukushima city and the surrounding valley.

10. Takato Castle Ruins, Nagano

Takato Castle Ruins surrounded by cherry blossom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Takato Castle Ruins Park in full bloom (Photo: bigglobe.ne.jp)

Last but certainly not least on our list is the Takato Castle Ruins Park in Nagano Prefecture, the last of the official top three cherry blossom spots in Japan (along with Mount Yoshino and Hirosaki Castle). Located on a hill in Ina City, Nagano, the park is about 60 km from Matsumoto (where the “Black Crow” Castle also provides a great hanami location). Visit during the month of April and you’ll find yatai stalls set up all around the park for the annual cherry blossom festival, and there are lovely illuminations held every evening from sunset until 10pm.

As with many of the spots on this list Takato Castle Park gets super busy during sakura season, so you’d be well advised to visit early in the morning and to avoid weekends unless you don’t mind crowds! Within the park, the curved Onkyo Bridge is one of the nicest points during cherry blossom – but there are plenty of other beauty spots if you take the time to wander around.

The Yamazaki Whisky Distillery is Pretty Neat!

A favourite pastime in Japan in summer is to get together with friends and while away the balmy nights around a habachi barbecue with some ice cold beers. In February however, what with the frequent snowfall and early sunsets, those long evenings can seem a distant memory. Beer is not called for at this time of year. This season calls for something a little stronger, and what tipple could be more fitting than a wee dram of whisky?

Slightly more than a wee dram here...

Slightly more than a wee dram here…

Although whisky production has a history going back nearly 100 years in Japan, until recently Japanese whisky hasn’t had widespread recognition within the international market. Over the last decade this has begun to change, and this year with a Japanese whisky named as the best in the world, Japanese whisky is finally getting the appreciation it deserves.

Although we might not all be able to afford a bottle of the award winning Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 (only 18,000 bottles were produced and it retails for US$160 a bottle), the Yamazaki distillery also produces some more affordable whiskies. As a bonus, the distillery is just a short 15 minute minute train ride from Kyoto (a destination which features on the majority of our Small Group Tours and Self Guided Adventures) and there are free daily guided tours of the distillery.

I recently visited the distillery to experience one of their guided tours, and of course to have a wee tipple! Here’s a brief look at what I saw and learnt!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

After a short train ride from Kyoto station, you will arrive at JR Yamazaki station. Much smaller then Kyoto station!

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

The distillery is less than 10 minutes walk from the station and is clearly signposted.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary in to Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Although Yamazaki station is in Kyoto prefecture, you will actually walk across the prefectural boundary into Osaka prefecture on your way to the distillery.

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn't seem half as bad!

Before long the distillery looms into view! As you can see, it was a slightly wet and dreary day. But I just imagined myself in the Scottish Highlands and suddenly it didn’t seem half as bad!

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

After reporting to the customer reception and confirming your appointment, you will be directed to the Yamazaki Whisky Museum (the white building on the right), which is where the tours start.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

I advise arriving about 30 minutes before your tour appointment, which will allow you to have a quick look around the exhibits in the museum. There were many old bottles on display charting the history of Suntory Yamazaki whisky from its birth in 1923 to the present day.

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can't speak Japanese!

Before the tour started I was also offered an English language audio guide. The tour guide will tell you which number to press and you can follow along with the tour even if you can’t speak Japanese. Marvellous!

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I'm not sure who the chap on the right is, but I've got a feeling he likes whisky.

My tour started right on time from the meeting point on the 2nd floor of the Whisky Museum. First we were greeted by these statues in the courtyard. The sitting statue on the left is Shinjiro Torii, who founded the distillery. I’m not sure who the chap on the right is, but I’ve got a feeling he likes whisky.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From the courtyard we ventured into the distillery itself and were given a chronological tour of the creation of whisky, starting with this room where the malting, mashing and fermentation takes place.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of 'pot stills' are used to create 'new-make spirits' of different characters.

From here we ventured into the distillation hall, where three different shapes of ‘pot stills’ are used to create ‘new-make spirits’ of different characters.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours.

From there we continued to the rather chilly storehouse where the ageing of the clear spirit takes place in oak casks. Casks of different ages impart different flavours and also give whisky its colour.

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

Each cask has the year of production printed on the front. This one is quite a young one compared to some that I saw!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery's very own Shinto shrine!

We left through the back entrance of the storage hall and walked past the distillery’s very own Shinto shrine!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part - the tasting hall!

The aromas floating around throughout all of the places we had visited so far had really whet my appetite for this part – the tasting hall!

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky - Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It's not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when...

The first whisky on offer for tasting was their signature whisky – Yamazaki 12 Years Old Single Malt. They recommend drinking it as a highball (mixed with soda water). It’s not how I usually drink my whisky, but as it was free I was happy to go along with their suggestion. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying my highball and packet of nuts when…

... another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki's sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky...

… another whisky was offered! This time from Yamasaki’s sister distillery, Hakushu, located in Yamanashi prefecture, home of Mt. Fuji. I actually preferred the fresher and smokier flavour of this whisky…

... but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than 'highball', I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

… but when we were given the chance to have yet another try of either the Yamazaki or the Hakushu in a form other than ‘highball’, I felt I had to represent the home team and tried the Yamazaki 12 Years Old neat. And jolly good it was, too!

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

Next stop was of course the gift shop. Three whiskies down and my purse strings were feeling slightly looser than usual, but I resisted and headed straight on through to the Whisky Library.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

The Whisky Library contains 7,000 bottles of single malt whisky all created at the distillery.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

Each bottle has detailed information about when it was created and tasting notes. Unfortunately the bottles in the library are not available for purchase or tasting.

However, don't be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a  number of other whiskies not just from Scotland but from Ireland, America and Canada as well.

However, don’t be disheartened! The Whisky Library also has a tasting counter where you can sample a large number of whiskies created by both the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries. They also have a number of other whiskies not just from Japan, but from around the globe.

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

As everything up until this point had been totally free of charge, I felt duty bound to at least spend some of my money in return for the wonderful services I had received. I opted to sample the Yamazaki 18 Years Old Single Malt. After sampling its loveliness, I almost felt duty bound to sample some others, but felt that this could be a rather slippery slope, and so decided it was safer to begin my journey home!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you're arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

And so my experience at the Yamazaki Distillery was concluded and I headed back to Yamazaki station. The distillery is actually located adjacent to the train line, so if you’re arriving into Kyoto from Kansai International Airport, or travelling between Osaka and Kyoto, keep an eye out for it on the way!

I highly recommend a visit to the Yamazaki distillery. You’re sure to learn something new, and who can say no to a bombardment of free whisky? Although participation is free, appointments for the guided tours are essential and need to be arranged well in advance. If you would like to find out more about how to include a tour of the Yamazaki distillery into your trip to Japan, please check out the experience page on our website. This experience could easily be included into a Self Guided Adventure and could also be combined with some other fantastic gastronomic experiences as part of your trip.

Sláinte and kanpai!

Japanese etiquette 101: How to Onsen

Ask almost anybody at InsideJapan Tours what is their favourite thing about Japan, and they will probably list the people, the food, and the onsen. Heck, ask any Japanese person what is their favourite thing about Japan and they’ll most likely say the same.  And yet for such a well-loved pastime, onsen are also probably the scariest part of Japanese culture for most foreigners.

But don’t worry – after reading this guide, you too will be an onsen master!

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

What’s an onsen?

First things first! An onsen 温泉 (lit. “hot water spring”) is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them.

Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot. The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 25C when it comes out of the ground. Rotenburo is another word you may hear in Japan and refers to an outdoors onsen (the best kind!).

Sento, on the other hand, are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water. Whilst onsen are generally looked on as something as a treat, sento are the everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people – and as such make a very interesting experience in themselves, although sometimes it can be a bit daunting to enter on your own as very few foreigners take the time to seek them out.

Nevertheless, the rules of etiquette are the same for both onsen and sento, so with your newfound skills you’ll be able to tackle any bathhouse with aplomb.

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

What’s so great about them?

Communal bathing doesn’t exactly sound appealing to most gaijin (foreigners), but in Japan it is a beloved part of traditional culture.

Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties basically since time began, and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble and granite – and are often situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty or attached to lovely traditional inns, which enhances their appeal.

There really is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!

Nyuto Onsen's famous outdoor bath

Nyuto Onsen’s famous outdoor bath

So what do I need to know?

There are quite a few rules of etiquette surrounding onsen bathing, and this can make the whole thing seem a little scary and uncomfortable when you’re not sure what you’re doing – but once you’ve done it once you’ll realise that it’s really not that complicated after all.

THE RULES:

1. Birthday suits only!

Yep – you heard me. No speedos allowed! This (unsurprisingly) is the bit that puts most people off, and anybody at InsideJapan will tell you that they all felt the same anxiety the first time they tried it. Once you dare to bare, however, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it – and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness. (N.B. I have heard tell that a fair bit of staring is par for the course in the mens’ onsen, but I can vouch that it’s very civilised in the ladies’!)

For those who really can’t stomach the idea of stripping off in public, there are a number of ways you can get around it. For one, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will be amongst the more expensive rooms), and in some inns the public baths are available for private use on request. Another alternative is to visit an onsen with milky water – once you’re in, nobody can see anything!

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

2. Shower before you bathe.

To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is, well… pretty gross actually! Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath – and this is even more important when you’re visiting a communal sento or onsen – to keep the water as clean as possible.

To this end, every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided (though you can bring your own if you prefer), and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you – and you must remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bath water.

Though it’s less important than showering before you bathe, most Japanese will have a quick rinse under the shower after a soak in the onsen – and if they are returning to the bath after using a sauna or steam room.

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

3. Towels

At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. This is not always the case at local sento baths, so you are advised to bring your own.

The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes), while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you (in fact, many people put them on their heads!) but you mustn’t let it go in the water.

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

4. Hair & head

If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel, as even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower – you should take care to make sure that it doesn’t go in the bath water. You wouldn’t want to be sitting around amongst other people’s hairballs, would you? Well that’s why.

In fact, even if you don’t have any hair you should refrain from putting your head underwater, as there is always a small chance that shared water may carry infection, and putting your head underwater increases your risk of catching something.

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

5. Tattoos

As I explained in a recent post, tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan – thanks for the most part to their association with Japanese organised crime (the yakuza). Unfortunately, this means that most onsen and sento ban tattoos completely – even if it is blatantly clear that you are not part of the mafia. It doesn’t make much sense, but rules is rules!

If you have a small tattoo, you may well get away without anybody noticing – or you can cover it up with a sticking plaster or bandage. If you have a larger tattoo that’s difficult to cover you may have more problems. Some solutions are to stay at ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use, or to head to the hotel onsen late at night after the other guests have dispersed. If you’re very brave, you could even find out where the real yakuza bathhouses are – but we’re not going to recommend it!

Sign forbidding tattoos at (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

Sign forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

6. Noise

Bathhouses are social places, and most onsen-goers like to have a bit of a chat while they relax – so as long as you’re not being rowdy you certainly don’t need to worry about making too much noise.

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

7. Alcohol

Onsen and sento will generally display signs indicating that you should not drink and bathe – for pretty obvious reasons I think. That said, a cup of sake or a cold beer while you soak can be divine, so if you’ve got your own private rotenburo then I say go right ahead!

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Our Infopack does contain the low-down on ‘How to Onsen’ so that you can relax and enjoy this cultural activity – bliss.

The early cherry blossom report for 2015

sakura blossom

It’s nearly here! The season that everyone has been waiting for, sandwiched between the long, cold winter months and the sweltering humidity of summer: spring! And spring means cherry blossom.

The early cherry blossom forecast was published on the 4th of February 2015 by the Japan Weather Association, which is exciting news for Japan!

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

Hanami party with geisha in Kyoto

The cherry blossom front sweeps along the length of the country each year, beginning with Okinawa in the far south and working its way along Japan to Hokkaido in the north. A variety of factors can affect when the cherry blossom comes into bloom: a particularly cold winter can mean that the flowers come out late, unseasonably mild weather can usher them out sooner, and heavy rain can mean that the trees drop their petals much quicker than otherwise. For this reason, the forecast is followed avidly throughout the sakura season!

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches

Nachi falls framed by sakura branches (photo: Kumano Travel)

This year, the weather association predicts that the cherry blossom will be pretty much on schedule, with both Tokyo and Kyoto expecting to see their first blooms open around March 26-27, with the best viewing period expected to fall between April 2 and April 10.

Kumamoto and Fukuoka on Kyushu Island will see their blossom arrive slightly earlier, around March 21, while mountain locations such as Nagano won’t see their first blooms until around April 12.

Tokyo's Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Tokyo’s Senso-ji Temple with cherry blossom

Our exciting new cherry blossom infographic is currently in the pipeline, and should be released in a matter of days. You’ll be able to use it to check whether the sakura is heading your way while you’re in Japan – so watch this space! In the meantime, here is an estimated schedule to give you an indication of what to expect in some key destinations:

sakura

If you are lucky enough to be in Japan during cherry blossom season, it is de rigueur to head out into the local parks and gardens, bring a selection of picnic food and drinks and join the locals for a hanami – which means “flower-viewing”. It is during this period that the Japanese are at their most relaxed, and the party atmosphere in public places at this time is infectious – whether you hit the parks in the daytime or in the evening, when lanterns hang around parks and gardens turning the canopy a glowing pink.

Illuminated sakura tree

Illuminated sakura tree

The tradition of hanami has a history stretching back over many centuries, thought to have begun during the Nara Period (710-794), so by getting involved you will be joining in one of Japan’s best-loved and most time-honoured rituals!

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

Crowds gather beneath the sakura trees in Tokyo

InsideJapan’s 2016 tour dates have just been released, so get in there now to make sure you don’t miss the beautiful blossom for another year.

Our top 15 favourite ryokan inns

Ryokan experience

Last week I explained why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan inn. For those who can’t quite be bothered to go back and read it, it’s quite simple: the food, the baths, and a little something the Japanese call omotenashi (which is kind of like hospitality, but BETTER).

Now, to celebrate fifteen years of InsideJapan, we would like to introduce you to our fifteen favourite ryokan inns in all of Japan (and let me tell you, we’ve visited a few in our time). These are the places we’ve revisited time and time again over the past fifteen years – whether it’s for the divine baked oysters at dinner, stunning onsen overlooking the sea, the beautifully decorated guest rooms or just for the wonderful welcome we always receive.

Although some of the ryokan on this list are super-deluxe, super-exclusive, and super-out-of-the-price-range-of-your-average-Joe; many of them are not, and here you’ll find establishments to cater for every price range.

To demystify a bit of travel jargon before we begin – Japan’s hotels and inns do not operate using a “star” rating system, so we have sorted these ryokan into four categories: Budget, Moderate, Superior and Deluxe – Budget being (obviously) the least pricey, and Deluxe being the most.

And so, without further ado, here are the pick of the bunch – in no particular order:

Yamaichi Bekkan, Miyajima Island (Moderate)

InsideJapan's Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan's perennially lovely proprietress

InsideJapan’s Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan’s perennially lovely proprietress

Where better to begin than with one of our best and longest-loved establishments, the Yamaichi Bekkan on Miyajima Island? Located in an unassuming building looking out over the port, the Yamaichi is a small, family-run establishment with simple, comfortable rooms. You may not be paying top dollar for a swanky suite and private onsen, but you will be treated like royalty by the ryokan’s eternally lovely proprietress (pictured). Not to mention you’ll get to try some of the most delicious food imaginable. You know those oysters I keep mentioning? The ones I still dream about sometimes? You’ll find those here.

 Ichinoyu Honkan, Hakone (Moderate)

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Another great value ryokan, the Ichinoyu Honkan is located in the beautiful Hakone National Park – AKA Mount Fuji’s back yard – and has been welcoming guests for nearly 400 years. The original inn was opened in 1630 and essentially pioneered the hot spring industry of Hakone – now one of the most popular onsen getaways in Japan. It even appears in ukiyo-e prints by the famous artist Ando Hiroshige! We recommend the Ichinoyu for its bar facilities (unusual for a ryokan) and excellent hot spring baths, which can be reserved for private use if you’re feeling a bit shy.

Koemon, Shirakawago (Budget)

Exterior of the Koemon

Exterior of the Koemon

The Koemon in Shirakawago may be a low-cost accommodation option, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you’re losing out. In fact, staying at the Koemon is such a great experience that we recommend it to many of our top-level customers too. Here you have the chance to experience life in one of the traditional farmhouses – known as gassho-zukuri (“praying hands”) for the steep pitch of their thatched roofs – that have made the alpine village of Shirakawago famous, and earned the area its World Heritage status.

Do not expect: creature comforts, a place to charge your iPhone, or en suite bathrooms. Do expect: a memorable and authentic experience, a warm welcome and great home-cooked food.

Iwaso, Miyajima Island (Superior)

onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Giving the Yamaichi Bekkan a run for its money, the Iwaso is another excellent ryokan in one of our favourite Japan destinations – Miyajima Island. Located in a lovely part of the Momijidani Park – well off the beaten track for most visitors to Miyajima – the Iwaso was the first establishment to open its doors on the island back in 1893. When previous guests have included famous authors, artists, and members of the Imperial family – you know you can expect something pretty special! We especially recommend visiting during autumn, when the surrounding maple trees become a blaze of reds and oranges.

Yumoto Kansuiro, Hakone (Superior)

InsideJapan's Enfys and Matt enjoying tea at the Yumoto Kansuiro on a recent visit

InsideJapan’s Enfys and Matt enjoying tea on a recent visit to the Yumoto Kansuiro

The second of three Hakone ryokan to feature on this list, the Yumoto Kansuiro ryokan is located in the Motoyu district and is one of the region’s most historic establishments – dating all the way back to 1614. Like the Iwaso, the Kansuiro has seen many illustrious guests pass its threshold – from artists and politicians to samurai and sumo wrestlers – and manages to convey a sense of history and authenticity through its carefully maintained antiques, beautiful painted screens and old, wooden buildings.

We especially love the hot spring baths and the delicious seasonal meals, which are served privately in your guest room by kimono-clad attendants.

Ryokan Kurashiki, Kurashiki (Deluxe)

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

In our opinion, the Ryokan Kurashiki is one of the very best accommodations in Japan. Pay a visit here and you really are in for a treat! Nakamura-san, the ryokan’s proprietress, is the most elegant and lovely of hosts (and speaks impeccable English to boot); the ryokan itself is full of character, with each maisonette filled with beautiful antiques; and there is a private indoor hot spring bath that can be booked for private use. In the spring and autumn, there’s nothing better than sitting at dinner with the restaurant’s sliding doors thrown open, looking out over the ryokan’s tastefully lit, beautifully landscaped garden.

What’s more, the ryokan is located right in the centre of Kurashiki’s lovely Bikan canal district; one of my personal favourite places in Japan. We particularly recommend this ryokan to those who prefer not to sleep on the floor, as each maisonette contains comfortable Western-style double beds instead of futon bedding.

Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto (Budget)

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

This ryokan is an oasis in the heart of the city of Kyoto, and the perfect place for any traveller on a restricted budget who would like a taste of authentic Japanese accommodation. Located in Maruyama Park, surrounded by maple trees and bamboo groves, it’s just a short walk from this idyllic little inn to the hustle and bustle of the city – making it the perfect combination of peace, quiet and convenience. To keep costs down, dinner is not served at this ryokan - but you will enjoy a delicious, home-cooked breakfast with real handmade bread (a rarity in Japan!) prepared by the establishment’s incredibly lovely proprietor.

Gora Kadan, Hakone (Deluxe)

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

The third of our three Hakone ryokan favourites, the Gora Kadan is one of the finest deluxe ryokan in Japan – and perhaps one of the most exclusive accommodations in the world. The main building was once the summer residence of the Kaninnomiya Imperial Family (which says it all, really), while the newer wing boasts beautiful tatami rooms with cypress baths, a heated indoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, a Jacuzzi and a restaurant serving food prepared by one of Japan’s top chefs.

No mere words can do it justice really – you just have to go there and experience it for yourself!

Minshuku Daikichi, Tsumago (Moderate)

Minshuku Daikichi

Minshuku Daikichi

A minshuku is a small, family-run, traditional-style bed and breakfast – and they don’t come much better than the Daikichi. Located in the small, former post town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley – where the streets are packed with preserved wooden buildings and there’s not a concrete slab or electricity pylon in sight – here you can be sure of a warm welcome, a comfortable room and a delicious meal of local cuisine. Keep an eye out for the friend grasshoppers!

Hanafubuki, Izu Peninsula (Superior)

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Set among the trees of a woodland grove on the Izu Peninsula, the Hanafubuki is a luxurious ryokan that is especially noted for its impressive selection of seven different hot spring baths (of varying shapes and sizes) and its lovely location in the Japanese countryside. Here you’ll feel light years away from the manic buzz of Tokyo, even though it’s really just a short journey away! Dinner is served in your choice of three different dining rooms, each beautifully decorated and looking out over the lantern-lit trees and pathways surrounding the ryokan. We highly recommend joining the ryokan manager in the morning for a complimentary guided walk along the lovely nearby coastal path!

Lamp no Yado, Noto Peninsula (Superior)

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

Lamp no Yado is a very special, luxury ryokan located on the isolated Noto Peninsula, about 150km by car from the city of Kanazawa. The ryokan is located right on the coast, with an amazing infinity pool looking out across the ocean and private open-air onsen baths attached to each luxurious guest room. As you’d expect, you’ll also find delicious kaiseki cuisine, polished-wood hallways and lovely tatami rooms – with friendly, helpful service. This is the perfect place to relax and get away from it all in a beautiful, traditional setting.

 Jiji no Ie, Boso Peninsula (Superior)

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

Jiji no Ie is a very unusual ryokan. Run by the well-known essayist and macrobiotic cooking teacher Deco Nakajima and her husband, writer and photographer Everett Kennedy Brown (with whom InsideJapan has the pleasure of working on specialist photography tours); Jiji no Ie gives both domestic and international guests the chance to unplug, slow down and reconnect with the simple life.

Along with a team of craftsmen, architects and gardeners, Deco and Everett built this ryokan from scratch using local timber, earth, bamboo and straw, with a beautiful onsen bath made from Aomori hiba wood and a garden designed by award-winning classical gardener Yosuke Yamaguchi. Breakfast and dinner are also a real treat, featuring Deco’s fantastic macrobiotic cooking – using only seasonal ingredients and local seafood.

We recommend staying at Jiji no Ie as an alternative to Tokyo at the beginning or the end of your trip, as a beautiful and peaceful introduction (or farewell) to Japan.

Nishimuraya Ryokan, Kinosaki Onsen (Deluxe)

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

This stunning, deluxe ryokan located at the heart of the Kinosaki Onsen hot spring area first opened its doors to visitors more than 100 years ago and is guaranteed to be a real treat. The wooden buildings here were partially designed by the famous architect Masaya Hirata, each room with its own personal flourish, set in the middle of a beautiful landscape garden. There are (of course) a range of wonderful onsen hot spring baths in which to relax and enjoy your peaceful surroundings, and a delicious kaiseki meal promises to provide the piece de resistance to a wonderful experience.

Kifu no Sato, Yunogo Onsen (Superior)

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Located in a modern building in the small town of Yunogo in rural Okayama Prefecture, Kifu no Sato is a lovely Japanese-style ryokan, boasting a wonderful landscaped garden at its centre and tatami matting throughout. Kifu no Sato is particularly noted for its ikebana flower arrangements (of which there are a staggering 65 throughout the hotel) and its onsen baths, which are truly superb and comprise several different types of bath (including some private rotenburo outdoor baths) and a “hot stone” sauna. The ryokan also has an exceptional commitment to reinvigorating the local environment and businesses, to which end almost all its furniture and decorative displays represent the work of local craftspeople. Finally, to complete this list of accomplishments, the elaborate seasonal kaiseki menus served in the restaurants are nothing short of outstanding – as I can personally attest!

Jinpyokaku, Yudanaka Onsen (Superior)

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

The final ryokan on our list is the wonderful Jinpyokaku, located in the small hot spring town of Yudanaka in Nagano Prefecture (best-known for its simian residents, the onsen-bathing snow monkeys). With luxurious, spacious rooms; heated kotatsu tables to keep your feet warm as you sip your green tea; and (very unusually) a large open-air hot spring bath that is not segregated by sex (don’t worry, there are separate baths for men and women for those who want them!) – this ryokan is so nice that you’ll never want to leave.

This is merely a selection of our favourite traditional ryokan covering various grades. The one thing that links these ryokan together is great food and wonderful service. If you are thinking of heading to Japan, we would certainly recommend staying at any of the above to experience a slice of Japanese culture and hospitality at its best….and if there isn’t any room for you at the inn, we know many other fantastic places (better than Trip Advisor!).

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